Semicolons and Colons…time for a recap…

Colon and semicolonAlthough I/we’ve covered semicolons before once or twice, I don’t think there’s any harm having a little refresh of the much misused and confused semicolon and colon. Having just read a number of books in which the authors (and/or editors…and…guess what…in a trad-pubbed book, too!) have got the two confused, I thought it could do no harm to have another look.

There are two basic rules for the semicolon.

1.   Between two closely-related independent clauses, which are not joined by a conjunction (and, but, etc):

Lois and Yvonne went to the zoo at the weekend; they love animals.

The link between the clauses means that the semicolon can be used, although a full stop (period) could have been used if you were in any doubt or even a conjunction like ‘as’. Remember that each of the clauses must be able to stand alone.

In this example, the semicolon should not be used.

Cornwall has a stunning coastline; great place to surf.

The latter clause cannot stand alone.

2   In a complicated list of many items, many of which themselves contain commas.

The meeting was attended by Stephen Hise, Founder; Kat Brooks, Co-Administrator; Lynne Cantwell, Contributing Author and Cathy Speight, Lycra and Cycling aficionado.

Just two golden rules, and you can’t go wrong. The semicolon is useful to give the comma a bit of a holiday, but like all things in life, to be consumed moderately!

And now to the colon. The colon introduces a list or an explanation, related to the preceding statement.

I went to the sales and found lots of bargains: jeans, dresses, tops and a fabulous pair of Jimmy Choos.

I studied languages at school: French, German, Italian and Latin.

Homemade pasta isn’t difficult: you just need really fine flour and a good pasta-making machine.

I wasn’t too keen on Water for Elephants: the animal cruelty distressed me.

I hope that simplifies it. They both have their place, as they can provide extra clarity where a comma or period don’t quite do the job. But don’t overuse them just to demonstrate you know how to.  I have read a book in which there were more than 450 semi-colons…

Author: Cathy Speight

Reviewer Cathy Speight is British and lives in England. The Kindle revived her passion for reading and after stumbling on a Facebook group of independent authors, she now does her best to encourage and assist indies as much as possible. Books by indie author form the majority of her collection. Cathy shares her views on the books she has read on her blog.

22 thoughts on “Semicolons and Colons…time for a recap…”

  1. Kurt Vonnegut used to hate semicolons: ‘Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

    I’ve been to college, and semicolons, along with exclamation points, dashes, and the whole sackfuls of commas, are vital tools in keeping the “stream of thought” from appearing to the reader as a wild torrent.

    Semicolons — especially — separate parts of a sentence “that need a more distinct break than a comma can signal, but that are too closely connected to be made into separate sentences,” Garner’s Modern American Usage — has come to seem like a beautiful little piece of psychological literary insight. No other piece of punctuation captures the way in which our thoughts are both liquid and solid, waves and particles, the Schrödinger duality in literature.

  2. I tend to agree with your publisher. The semicolon seems to cause so much confusion and is misused more than it is correctly used. The little ol’ full stop does the same job equally well!

  3. Good one. Now a question, as it’s one that has stymied me before. In the second example for the semi-colon is is also correct to use commas instead.? When I do ,it doesn’t look right with commas to me but I had not realised one could use the semi’s there.

  4. You mean in a list of complex items? I think it’s becoming more common now to use commas, because semicolons scare people. 😉 But it makes me a little crazy when I see it, because you do sacrifice some clarity.

  5. Thanks for the clarification, Cathy.

    I beta-read a chapter for a friend a couple of weeks ago. He doesn’t use semicolons at all, and I was just *itching* to put some in. I may have a problem… 😉

  6. Being a simple (and lazy) soul, I prefer simple options.Thank you, Cathy have helped clarify another area that gets fuggier the older I get. (Fuggier is a word, isn’t it?)

  7. I know that quote well and do rather like it. The semicolon is there in the punctuation arsenal. However, if you only think you know how to use it, it’s best not to. Using a full stop instead isn’t wrong. It just alters the effect of the prose a little.

  8. If your item in your list contains a comma, then it’s best to separate them with a semicolon. In the example above, the list might have read that the meeting was attended by Kat Brooks AND a co-administrator had all list entries been separated by a comma. The semicolon here keeps the name and identification together. And now I’ve confused you even more.

  9. I’ve only just started being brave enough to use semi colons, and I agree, they do add a subtle difference to both the clarity and the lyrical quality of the prose. Great post. 🙂

  10. I agree with your editor, Pam. I hate seeing semicolons in dialogue and always sweep them away if I’m proofreading. They have no place in dialogue.

  11. What a great topic, Cathy! I am wondering if you could give some clarification on something. Here are four variations of the same sentence…

    I wasn’t too keen on Water for Elephants: the animal cruelty distressed me.

    I wasn’t too keen on Water for Elephants, the animal cruelty distressed me.

    I wasn’t too keen on Water for Elephants because the animal cruelty distressed me.

    I wasn’t too keen on Water for Elephants. The animal cruelty distressed me.

    Which of these do you prefer, and why? Also, is the comma incorrect here, and if so, why?

    Thank you for sharing your expertise!

    1. R Lazfin: All except the comma version are correct and interchangeable. The comma used in this way in this sentence is a comma splice as it’s connecting two independent clauses. Basically, it’s connecting a run-on sentence. Each of the other examples has a different effect, so it all depends on what you’re after.

  12. I’m interested in Cathy’s reply on this:
    I wasn’t too keen on Water for Elephants: the animal cruelty distressed me.

    I was taught to cap the first letter after a full colon. Elephants: The .
    Yes or No?
    Here is another punctuation I am noticing: The last comma at the end of the second clause before ‘and’ in a compound sentence is being dropped in some well-edited books. Trad five and others. I actually like it. The sentence reads smoother. A comma is a ‘pause’. It seems logical to me that one does not need a pause before the ‘and’.
    Wondering.

    1. It’s a variable, Jackie. Some say lowercase, some say lowercase unless it’s a proper noun or a quote or the start of a question, or the start of an independent clause, or…or…or… There seem to be so many ‘ors’ I prefer to stick to lower case. Uppercase just doesn’t look right. However, I prefer to see the colon used correctly, rather than quibble over the case of the following word.
      As for the omission of the ‘and’ joining two independent clauses, it’s as I replied earlier. It’s a comma splice. Or, in my view, sheer laziness. It’s just messy.

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